Louis Renault had not been just the man who put the French on highways in the early days of the last century. No, when the German army was rapidly advancing on Paris in the earliest part of the Great War, Renault ordered his taxis in the Paris fleet to carry emergency troops to the front line to halt Germany’s movement to seize his beloved city. They succeeded. That act and other manufacturing contributions to the Allied Armies would be recognized in 1918, when Renault was awarded the French Legion of Honor and proclaimed a Hero of the Republic.
In 1940 the French government sent Renault on an emergency mission to the United States; Germany was on the move again, and France desperately needed tanks and other war materiel to halt the Nazi advance across the Continent. However, by the time Renault returned to Paris it was too late: The Germans had already seized the city. Renault was given the choice of having his factory’s equipment disassembled and moved to Germany, along with his workforce, or agreeing to continue his work in France — where his industrial contributions might help the occupying army.
Renault put his factories into the service of the new Vichy France, which he felt was a legalistic technical difference; in reality, Renault was now working in the service of the National Socialists. In 1942 Life magazine would label the one-time French industrial hero of the Great War “the notorious Paris collaborationist.”
Getting Charged Up
Ferdinand Porsche had been born two years before Renault in Vratislavice nad Nisou, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today the Czech Republic. At the end of the Great War and the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s dissolution, Porsche would be forced to declare his nationality, and he chose Czech. At just 18 he found work at an electric company in Vienna. Almost immediately he showed his natural gift for invention, his first innovation being the electric hub motor.
From there he moved to Jakob Lohner & Company, which produced fine coaches for the monarchs of Europe and had been working on producing automobiles two years before Porsche’s arrival. Here his self-taught electrical background came into play immediately; the very young man was put in charge of the Egger-Lohner electric automobile. Porsche managed to get P1, for “Porsche’s first,” stamped onto all of that car’s major components. He was brilliant, but humility was absent from Porsche’s personality.
However, while impressive for an early electric car, its capability was limited by the lead acid battery pack. It weighed 4,000 pounds, which was fine for speed on level ground but severely slowed that car on hills. Porsche had a better idea for the company’s next vehicle, the 1901 Lohner-Porsche Mixte hybrid. In it he replaced the battery pack with an internal combustion engine, which powered the generator that ran the electric motors. It’s known today as a series hybrid electric, and that Porsche design today is how the Chevy Volt gets around — or the electric diesels that power the world’s locomotives. Porsche was 26 years old when he changed the world of propulsion. That particular vehicle would become the company’s best seller, 300 copies built in the next five years. As for Ferdinand Porsche, he was awarded the Potting Prize as Austria’s best automotive engineer in 1905.
However, by then Porsche had been drafted into military service and assigned to chauffeur Archduke Franz Ferdinand around. One may recall that Franz Ferdinand’s assassination a decade later would plunge Europe into the GreatWar, the same war in which Renault’s Paris taxis ferried troops to the frontlines in Northeast France to save the nation.
In 1906 Austro-Daimler hired Porsche, who then designed the 85 horsepower Model 27, known best as the Prince Henry. He was put in charge of the 30 horsepower Maja. Maja Jellinek, that small vehicle’s namesake, had a far more famous sister, Mercedes, and it’s her name that still adorns Daimler products today. In time the self-educated Porsche would become managing director of Austro-Daimler, but he left in the early 1920s over debates on how to move forward with their automotive products. Daimler Motoren hired him as its technical director in 1923, and now the honorary degrees and doctorates started coming Porsche’s way. He later infuriated his co-workers by demanding to be called Dr. Porsche, because most knew he actually hadn’t earned that degree.
When Daimler merged with Benz in 1926 Porsche started pushing for a small car everyone could afford; that’s a sure-fire way to lose money in the auto industry today and was even more so then. His reason was that along the way he’d made numerous trips to Michigan to inspect Ford’s operations, and its huge River Rogue factory convinced Porsche that this was Germany’s future salvation. But the powers that ran Daimler Benz at the time didn’t share Porsche’s enthusiasm for giant financial losses on small cars to motorize Germans and let him go in 1929. (One of the great ironies: When Porsche developed the first Beetle for the Nazis, Mercedes would build the prototype.)
Porsche went to Steyr and was let go when the Great Depression hit.
Several People’s Car
In April of 1931 Porsche returned to Stuttgart and opened his own automotive consulting firm. He got financial help to do so from Anton Piech, the attorney who had helped him in his contract dealings when he left Daimler and who had married his daughter soon after that. In spite of the Depression, Porsche and his son Ferry would find steady work, even more after the National Socialists seized power. In June of 1934 Hitler gave Porsche the contract to build a “people’s car,” which would in time become the Volkswagen Beetle; this is the one time Porsche seems to have mostly stolen another automaker’s designs. Hans Ledwinka of Tatra would sue over Porsche’s stealing the Beetle’s design from his V570 and Tatra T97 models — and worse, stealing his rear-end, air-cooled engine that powered those vehicles. That lawsuit was put on ice when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, although that lawsuit was not the reason Hitler invaded.
But now what to do with Porsche, who was Czech himself? Hitler thought that nationality subhuman. Turns out Nazis can be quite flexible if they like you — or, better yet, need you. Hitler simply allowed Porsche to legally become German and solve that whole subhuman race bit. The Beetle was built, though the war would end what few sales had been made to the public. Porsche turned over car designs and racing vehicles to his son Ferry and went to work making tanks for the German army. Porsche didn’t just become a German, he also gladly became a Nazi Party Member and joined the SS. He had no problem running the Volkswagen works during the war using Jewish, Polish, and Russian slave labor.
But as things do, wars end. And in the negotiations for reparations, in November of 1945 Porsche was asked to continue work on the Volkswagen in France and to move the factory equipment there. When he arrived, he was also asked to do design work on the upcoming Renault 4CV. But Louis Renault had died, and now running the company was Pierre Lefaucheux, who until recently had been a stalwart member of the French Resistance. Instead of modernizing the French auto industry, Porsche, his son Ferry and son-in-law Anton Piech were arrested and imprisoned for war crimes.
Ferry was released after just six months. He returned to Stuttgart, where he tried to keep his dad’s business viable. But he also began designing his famed Porsche 356, which would launch the company you know today.
How They Treated Heroes
Louis Renault, imprisoned as a collaborator in 1944 once Paris was liberated, was dead within a month; many including his wife believed that his final coma and death resulted from a severe beating in prison. His 1918 French Legion of Honor was stripped from him. He always claimed he did what he did to save his company and his workforce. And in fact, in his will, Louis Renault left his industrial empire to his 40,000 workers. The French government confiscated it anyway.
In 2013 the sign outside of Vratislavice nad Nisou in the Czech Republic, which proudly proclaimed that the village was the birthplace of Ferdinand Porsche, was taken down after protests that it promoted Nazism. The local museum’s exhibit about his life’s work was changed to include his work for the Nazi war cause, that he was a member of the Nazi party and the SS. Porsche then removed the cars it had donated to that museum.
At least France kept Renault’s name on the car company, in spite of the fact that the country stole it from his workers and family and likely killed its founder. Ferdinand Porsche lived comfortably until his passing in 1951 because Volkswagen decided to give him a royalty payment on every Beetle built. But at least he didn’t have to move to South America. Oh, and VW paid off Hans Ledwinka of Tatra too for having his automotive designs stolen. Neither Renault or Porsche started or fought in the Second World War, but they were both destroyed by it. In spite of that, their names live on today.
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org